Dazzling Discipline: Strategies for the Elementary Music Teacher

Ah, summer! In my whole five days of summer vacation, I finally feel like I have some time to do things I've been putting off or neglecting because of other things that needed to take priority. One of these things is my blog!  I decided a good way to plunge back into blogging was to link up with Aileen Miracle over at Mrs. Miracle's Music Room

As part of her celebration in reaching 1200 followers, she asked her followers what was something they'd like her to blog on. Discipline was the winner!

There are MANY different ways to approach this subject. I am sure we've all sat in on all sorts of training and have read all sorts of resources that deal with discipline and classroom management.  That being said there are A LOT of different ways that are successful and maybe not so successful in dealing with student behavior. What works for me may or may NOT work with your students, but I will gladly share what has helped me in creating a classroom that is hopefully inviting and fun yet orderly for my students.

Be prepared. 

What works for the Boy Scouts works wonderfully for teachers too! :-)

I know when students walk into my classroom that I want to have everything ready to go: instruments out and prepared, technology ready, lessons well-planned and rehearsed, puppets, books, and props well-placed so I can get to them quickly and I'm not digging through my collections, etc.

I do not want to be fumbling through files, searching for remotes, digging through my closets for instruments, or taking an excessive amount of time changing out a CD and then having to look at which track I need.

For example, in my first couple years of teaching, I was HORRIBLE at misplacing things. Everything from the remote for the projector, to my whiteboard markers, to even my lesson plans! My students were thankfully very helpful and sweet, but I think of how much instruction time I wasted and how much in potential discipline problems that could have resulted because of my lack of organization.

Here is a picture of a teacher bag very similar to what I use.  Her bag is very cute and maybe one day I will bite the bullet and buy myself a super cute bag, but for now I am satisfied with the bag my school district gave me at new teacher orientation. I can't believe it, but it's made it through my dragging it all over Twin Falls for over six years now!  This kind of organization has helped me (as long as I stay on top of it) in keeping my room organized so my focus can be where it needs to be: the students and music.

Picture from Ms. M's Blog. Click to visit her blog!
Here's another pic of inside her bag. I think I may have this exact metal container to hold everything! I think I got it either at Target or Office Max. . .

Pic from Ms. M's Blog. Click to visit her blog!

**These are not my pictures and this is not the EXACT blog I got the idea from, but Ms. M's blog has all sorts of ideas to keep you organized which will help you focus on your students rather than things that should not be an issue in the middle of your lesson!**

As for everything else I would misplace, I really had to train myself to keep it in the same place every. single. time. I will still walk around the classroom and set down my MIMIO pen somewhere if I don't make sure to put it back in its spot. . .

I will not say that every lesson I present is perfect or that I never have a moment where I mess up or completely forget something I needed to copy, pull out, file, etc.  I'm human. I make mistakes.

BUT with that being said, I expect of myself that I have put in the time so my lesson and everything that goes with it is ready to go and students don't have time to even start thinking about what they can get into. :-)

Be consistent.

Have a set of rules, follow them, and have classes/students that need to practice them PRACTICE!

Before that very first class enters your room, your space, or where ever you teach, have the expectations for students prepared and ready to be reinforced.  Each class has their own dynamic that reflects a variety of contributing factors but having a set of clear cut expectations for students from the moment they enter the classroom until they leave the classroom is vital!

There are many rules one can have in their class that are just as good as others.  These are the five main rules I use:

1. Enter and leave the Music Room quietly. 
2. Raise hand to speak and wait to be call on.
3. Play instruments only when asked.
4. Be kind and courteous to all.
5. Try your best in all our activities.

There are details, of course, that accompany these five rules.

For example, entering and leaving quietly. Students are expected to come into the classroom and find their seat quietly.  Sometimes I have a piece of music they are listening to as they enter, sometimes they are to look for specific thing displayed somewhere in the room, sometimes they are to read something (musical or written), and sometimes, yes, they are just expected to come in and sit down!

If I have a class that seems to have trouble walking into the classroom properly, we line up again, review the rule, and do it again.  There have been a couple different classes in my teaching where they've had to line up again a few time just to be able to enter the classroom done properly. 

Yes, it takes valuable teaching time. 

Yes, it's somewhat irritating if you have a class that you have to do this with every. single. week. (Note: Even if you are irritated, keep emotion out of the situation. Getting hyped up will not help your blood pressure nor will it help the students understand that they need to follow the rule. In fact, some students tune out, get upset, or become more apt to do the behavior again when a teacher becomes upset as this is a behavior they deal with at home.)

However, after a few times (or more) of going through expectations and making sure the behavior you desire is consistently done, students begin to understand that "X" is the expectation and we will repeat it over and over until it's done correctly. 

Also, I always make sure to review my expectations after breaks, long weekends (if they happen close to beginning of the year) and just if I feel a class needs review.  I have to constantly remind myself that students see me one time a week.  We could be in school for an entire month and only see a single class up to 4 times! If a behavior is tolerated in their regular classroom and other teachers' classrooms but not mine, I have to make sure I go through and review, review, REVIEW that desired behavior for my classroom.

I don't want to come off as sounding militaristic or overly strict in any way.  I do not condone abusive or controlling behavior by teachers to students. I do not believe that kind of "teaching" is conducive to learning or creativity. However, there must be a certain set of expectations that are non-negotiable and must be met to keep an orderly classroom.

Focus on the positive!

It is SO easy, for me, to think of a class and judge the WHOLE by one or two students who are tougher to deal with.

I have found, through lots of continual work on my part, that when I look for the positive in the class it sometimes takes care of the problem without it/the student becoming the focus of the class rather than music.  
I'm always trying to look for students that are trying their best or consistently following my expectations. I choose them first to play or choose instruments, line up, be first in a game, be my helper, etc.  It's amazing how quickly a class can sometimes change in their behavior when I say "I am looking for someone I've noticed trying especially hard to do 'x'". In the younger grades it's almost comical, and I sometimes have to stop myself from laughing at how "perfect" they all try to make themselves.

I also try to notice students following instructions when we are in the middle of doing an activity. For example, if I've given the instruction "When I stop playing the beat, you are to freeze in whatever shape you'd like but make sure both feet are on ground so we don't have anyone accidentally fall" and little Suzy stops with one foot in the air, I will notice little Johnny who just happened to be nearby. I will say something like "Wow! I see that Johnny remembered when the drum stops we put BOTH feet on the ground!"  99 out of 100 times Suzy will put her foot from the air down on the ground. I will usually make sure I smile and/or nod at Suzy who is also looking for recognition but will not, at that time, notice her in front of the class.

I used to begin my "noticing" with "I like the way" or "I love the way" but decided recently to change it to "I notice. . . " or "I see. . . ". I am unsure if I heard this in a training or what, but I decided somewhere along the way that "I love" and "I like" put too much focus on what I wanted rather than the student focusing on the expectation.

This, of course, will not work in EVERY situation but will certainly change your focus.  It has mine! It is up to you as the teacher to decide if a situation needs to be dealt with immediately or if you can be a little more "sneaky" about it. ;-)

Another thing we are doing as a school to start focusing on the positive and creating a positive environment is participating in a multi-year positive behavioral intervention program called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports). This year was our first and we began by creating three school-wide expectations: Be Kind, Be Respectful, and Be Your Best. 

As a school, we are also doing what we call "Caught Being Good" where we recognize students doing their best, being thoughtful, kind, etc. We fill out a little triplicate paper that include the student's name and what they did. We turn in one copy to the office where those students were recognized the next day in morning announcements, one copy goes to their classroom teacher so the students can be recognized there, and one goes to the parent through the child taking it home so there is hopefully some recognition there too. 

I realize not all schools have the ability to participate in doing something like this as triplicate are expensive (we happened to get a really good deal on some rejects through a local printer), but I think in any way that you can communicate positive behavior to as many people as you can that you will see results in student behavior in your classroom for the better.

One thing I'd like to work on this coming year is recognizing classes and communicating to the teacher on classroom behavior. I LOVE this pin that I found a long time ago, and I think it will be one of my summer projects for this coming school year. With this, I could do a clothes pin for each class and it would be much easier for me to recall behaviors to relay to teachers later through email, a short note, or when I see then in the hallway.

Keep them engaged and singing!

This last one kind of goes along with being prepared and organized, but it is also something that I am very conscientious of during a lesson. So much so I felt it deserved its own sparkly number. ;-)

Sometimes I talk too much. Sometimes my brain gets going so much farther than what my fingers can type or my mouth can say that what I say or type doesn't make sense. 

I, personally, have had to slow my brain down when I teach but also be very aware of how much I am talking when explaining things. Am I giving the students too much information? Am I getting distracted?

I have actually told myself (in my head, of course) "Shut up, Malinda, and get them singing!" in my first couple years of teaching! Short and concise. That's what I needed to work on to keep my students focused.

I decided, and again this may have come from a training or an article I read somewhere, that I should only give students two maybe three things MAX to do at a time. Any more and 1.) they don't remember them all and 2.) I would be talking too much and they'd begin to tune me out anyway and then discipline problems ensue as the students are no longer engaged.

For example, instead of giving the instructions of the ENTIRE game before we start it, I think of how I can break down what I want them to eventually be able to do into different steps.  

Here is what I may have told students in my first year of teaching: we're going to go sit down on the carpet in a circle, then we are going to have one person walk around the outside of the circle as we're singing the song we just learned. I want you to keep a beat on your laps so no one gets their hands stepped on as the person walks around the circle. At the end of the song we'll have the person walking around the outside touch the person's head they stop in front of and that person will chase the other by fast walking around the outside of the circle. If the person is caught. . . and you get the picture.

I don't recall exactly if I would try to do THAT much, but again, I do remember saying to myself "Shut up and get them singing!" and it certainly did influence how my students were behaving as I gave instructions and it certainly did influence how well students understood and were able to perform the game/whatever we were doing as I would inevitably have to go through all the instructions AGAIN as we were playing since they forgot everything!

Now it's broken down and the students are always wondering what comes next and if they can figure out what we're doing. Engagement is high. They sing A LOT more. Discipline is not an issue.

So here is the same set of instructions broken down.

First we learn the song using whatever method I happen to use for the lesson.

Then we add keeping a beat as we sing.

Next, I ask students to move to the carpet and make a circle. Sometimes we sing the song as we move. Sometimes we just move. It really depends on the class and if I feel I will lose them without singing to the carpet. :-)

We then practice singing while keeping the beat by our new neighbors as I walk around the outside of the circle to make sure we have a clear path around the outside of the circle and to choose who the first person is going to be who walks around the outside.

I've modeled what that person needs to do by stopping behind them when the song is done and tapping them on the head. So that person can usually just do what I did as we sing again. Very little verbal instruction was needed.

You get the picture hopefully. :-)

Now students are engaged and watching and wondering what is coming next, students are singing, and I am NOT the Peanuts teacher off to the side going "wah wahwah wah wah". ;-)

It took practice and preparation on my part because and I am still perfecting the art of giving them just one step at a time, but by doing this, students are engaged and I don't have to spend nearly as much time with behavior issues. Students are always wondering what's coming next.

Music is a joyous and wonderful subject.  I feel privileged in being able to assist students in learning and experiencing this art form. I can imagine nothing else to do with my days even on the days where I want to tear my hair out! ;-) Thankfully, those days are very very few and far between thanks to these suggestions I wrote about and many others that I have read in articles, books, and blogs just like this. I hope you all have found something to assist you in your classrooms so you too can experience that joy and wonder that is teaching music.


  1. So well written, Malinda! :) (And I LOVED the Peanuts comic, so funny!) Thanks so much for linking up!

    1. Thanks for opening this to link up! It was fun to write about and even more so to read about on everyone's blog.